The Portland Phoenix

Children’s Museum plans spring reawakening at Thompson’s Point

The new, 30,000-square-foot Children's Museum & Theatre of Maine sits on an acre of land at Thompson's Point in Portland. It is the product of a $14 million capital campaign and on track to open this spring. (Courtesy Children's Museum)

Despite a nearly year-long pandemic that has derailed projects around the world, the new Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine is still set to open at Thompson’s Point this spring.

Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of the museum, last week said she is confident the museum will open as planned, although a precise date has not been set. A decision to open the museum, she added, will involve observing if coronavirus cases continue to decline and remaining in compliance with state COVID-19 guidelines.

“We want to time it appropriately so that we feel confident that the building is ready, but also that we definitely are confident that it’s safe to open,” Pezzino said.

The new neighborhood exhibit at The Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine at Thompson’s Point is reminiscent of a similar exhibit at the old Free Street museum, but features all new structures. (Courtesy Children’s Museum)

The 30,000-square-foot building will include a 100-seat theatre and 10,000-square-foot science center with seven aquarium tanks, among other features.

It is a project that has been in the works for several years. Pezzino said discussions about moving the museum from its former building on Free Street near Congress Square began in 2008 when the Children’s Theatre of Maine merged with the Children’s Museum.

The museum moved to Free Street in 1993 after being founded by the Junior League of Portland in 1976.

According to Pezzino, the museum board searched for several years to find the right location. In 2016 the organization launched a fundraising campaign for the project and the following year purchased a vacant acre of land at Thompson’s Point to build a new structure. As of late January, the capital campaign had raised $13.75 million toward its goal of $14 million.

Ground was broken on the project in November 2019, which Pezzino said was lucky, since it gave workers time to make progress before COVID-19 hit Maine, although she also said construction has continued “largely safely and on schedule through the pandemic.”

‘A dream in the making’

Pezzino said moving the museum from Free Street has been a “dream in the making for over a decade,” and that the plans pre-date her tenure as executive director, a position she has held for the last year and a half.

The museum has a “great relationship” with Thompson’s Point, she said, and the two organizations have agreements in place about where their respective customers can park on the premises.

She said once Thompson’s Point is again able to host large gatherings like concerts, those events will likely not pose an issue to the operations of the museum since they are held at night, and the museum is typically closed by 5 p.m.

The Free Street museum was housed in a “fairly old building,” she said.

“(It) was not built to be a children’s museum or a children’s theater,” she said. “Particularly as far as the theater is concerned, it’s essentially a glorified room in a basement.”

The new 100-seat theater at Thompson’s Point will be a major feature of the space, with state-of-the-art features including a green room backstage and a fabrication shop to build exhibits and other structures.

Workers stand near recently delivered water tanks to be part of the Maine Watershed Aquarium exhibit at the new Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. (Courtesy Children’s Museum)

The new theater will also give the museum an opportunity to expand its programming, Pezzino said, and to partner with performing arts organizations in the community.

Pezzino said the museum’s theater has traditionally produced theater “for kids by kids,” meaning child actors whom the museum has recruited on its own. But it now plans to incorporate more adult and young adult actors into its future programming.

“It’s been great in that we’ve been able to pull interested young people from a wide swath of the region,” Pezzino said. “But I think it’s also been challenging because that’s really been the bulk of our programming up until now and we’re looking to expand that more significantly to a wider variety of types of performance.”

In light of the pandemic, however, the theater is planning a one-actor play for its opening, which Pezzino said is “about as separated as you can get.” The theater will also not have more than 30 people inside at one time to maintain social distancing.

Other parts of the museum will also be following guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including limited capacity and timed ticketing, which means patrons must sign up for a time slot to visit the museum.

She also said having the museum housed in a new building is beneficial during the pandemic since the new ventilation system and high ceilings will guarantee good airflow.

New features

Exhibits are now being installed in the new museum, and Pezzino said they include “many nods” to the old building.

One of the most obvious ones, she said, is being called the “neighborhood” and features a new fire truck, hospital, and market, which patrons may be familiar with from Free Street, although the exhibit structures are all new.

Additionally, the museum’s specialized camera obscura, which projects a 365-degree view of what it sees, has been moved from the roof of the Free Street building to Thompson’s Point.

The new venue’s 2,000-foot aquarium space is much larger than the touch tanks that were at Free Street and is designed to mirror the Maine watershed. It will have saltwater and freshwater species, and be situated on a floor dedicated to science and STEM learning.

Pezzino said the new museum will also carry on with its access initiatives, which are listed on its website, to give as many families as possible the opportunity to enjoy the space.

The organization has a policy that it does not turn anyone away for their inability to pay admission fees.

“The pandemic has been a hard time for a lot of people and it’s really important to us that our institution, which we hope will be a bright, gleaming beacon of light for the state when we get past all of this, (is) accessible to everyone,” Pezzino said.

Portland artist Rachel Adams in front of one of the murals she painted for the new Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine at Thompson’s Point. (Courtesy Children’s Museum)

New museum, new mural artist

The new Children’s Museum & Theater of Maine has brought Portland resident Rachel Adams one step closer to her dream of being a full-time artist.

Adams has painted her first two murals on the museum’s walls, which are displayed in two exhibit rooms. The paintings match the fun, modern vibe of the new museum, and feature a mix of geometric shapes.

A graduate of Maine College of Art, Adams majored in printmaking and grew up as part of what she called an “artist family” as the daughter of an art teacher. Last year she launched a children’s clothing company known as “Tachee,” which has plans to expand into making homegoods.

She also has a full-time job that she said she is “very grateful” for, but her ultimate goal is to create art full time.

Adams is married to fellow Portland artist Ryan Adams, who is known for his graffiti work and several murals around the city. 

She said she was first approached about creating art for the new museum space about three years ago, after Ryan did some painting for the former museum on Free Street, and an administrator there discovered her art.

“It was funny getting asked, (because) at that point there was pretty much only the gravel that they used to weigh down the Earth in anticipation of a building (at Thompson’s Point),” she said.

The murals took her roughly six days to complete, and with a full-time job and two children, Adams said she sometimes worked on the paintings late at night in addition to a couple of full-day sessions. 

The mural that will be featured in the museum’s water playroom features mostly blue tones, as well as squiggly lines that Adams said are meant to reflect the “movement and activities that would be happening in the room.”

The other painting is more lively and mostly red with what Adams called “sharper geometric” features. 

Having helped her husband on his mural jobs for the past five years, she said the process was “demystified” and less overwhelming for her.

She also enlisted Ryan’s help in getting the paintings done. The two of them, she said are “programmed to be really deliberate” with their time, as they have busy lives.

“We’re constantly juggling, but it was honestly the most time we’ve been able to spend by ourselves,” Adams said. “So it was kind of nice just to be in a big open space and ordering takeout and stuff; that’s how we date now, I guess.”

— Elizabeth Clemente

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